Even from a country generating waves of extreme news—accounts of Africa’s highest GDP alongside stories of terrorism—the reports of the schoolhouse kidnappings were shocking. About 300 Nigerian schoolgirls had been abducted from their dormitories by violent extremists and were being held in a remote forest, seemingly beyond rescue.
It took international media some days before focusing on the story of the abductions, but when a Nigerian’s plaintive Twitter hashtag—#BringBackOurGirls—went viral, the tragic news was everywhere. The phrase was tweeted millions of times. One photo of a forlorn-looking first lady Michelle Obama holding a sign of the hashtag was retweeted more than 58,000 times.
But the story of how an explosive social media effort redirected the world’s attention to a corner of the globe is also the story of how awareness is a slim substitute for understanding. What began as a Nigerian campaign aimed at local government incompetence was stretched to enfold all manner of worthy agendas, including fundraising efforts to secure books or uniforms for Nigerian schoolgirls—just one of the targets of Boko Haram, the kidnappers who seek to establish an Islamic state and end Western education in Nigeria.
Fairly quickly, the international discussion was directed by a hashtag activism that successfully overtook more modest journalistic efforts.
Journalists should not settle for the facile when deeper stories are waiting to be reported
In trying to parse the events, I e-mailed Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and author of “Rewire,” an examination of the challenges of harnessing the Internet to build international engagement. He wrote back from Nairobi, where he was doing fieldwork, and said that what began as a local Nigerian effort to draw attention to the incompetence of President Goodluck Jonathan’s government became “a more complicated dialogue” when #BringBackOurGirls began trending on Twitter in the U.S. and Europe.
“Africa is usually a problem for American readers to fix, to donate to, to support,” Zuckerman wrote me. “In a Nigerian context, Bring Back Our Girls is a political demand, asking for a higher degree of competence and engagement from an often inept government. The Nigerian campaign wanted international attention but perhaps not the international input later offered.”
On Mother’s Day morning, I biked to Cambridge Common where a concerned Harvard graduate student had organized a “Bring Back Our Girls” rally. A bright sun and free coffee warmed the small crowd. Many of those who gathered were wearing red, the color that had come to symbolize the gathering international protests. “We need to do something and be part of that larger conversation that is happening globally,” an organizer explained. She introduced the first speaker, a lawyer from Nigeria who said it was important to remember that there were places where a library was a “luxury.”
I spotted Ameto Akpe, a 2014 Nieman Fellow and gifted Nigerian journalist who has written about systemic corruption in her country. I waved to her and we sat next to each other on a stone bench. “Nothing in Nigeria is as it seems, absolutely nothing,” she said. “But this overly simplified story seems to suit a Western audience.”
As the speeches continued, Ameto patiently told the nuanced history of Boko Haram’s radical, violent turn. She described an unlikely galvanizing moment: In 2009, when police stopped Boko Haram members riding in a funeral procession for defying a motorcycle helmet law, the mourners interpreted it as a provocation. Weeks of armed clashes between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military followed, with each side claiming the other side fired the first shot. The clashes ended when Boko Haram’s founder, in police custody, was fatally shot.
Ameto was dismayed by the “misinformation through oversimplification” she felt characterized much of the news coverage and, consequently, world reaction. Corruption, political ineptitude, and incompetent leadership loom large in Nigeria and these problems need to be addressed locally. Even the international discussion of Boko Haram as “foreign Islamic terrorists,” she said, fit a fearful Western narrative and had the unwelcome effect of absolving the local Nigerian government of its primary role in this evolving tragedy.
“Call them what they are,” Ameto said of the captors: “Thugs.” She said she worried that the story had become “hijacked” by people of good intent who, in a rush to raise awareness, had redirected the focus to well-meaning but ultimately ineffective actions, while the underlying problems of poverty, corruption and an impotent government were sidelined. “Buying books has nothing to do with this,” she said.
The emotional pull of the kidnapping story was undeniable and the #BringBackOurGirls social media movement understandably appealed to distant observers aching to respond—with rallies, donations, tweets. But journalists should not settle for the facile when deeper and more complex stories about political and economic alienation are waiting to be reported.
“We have criticized Western journalists for not reporting on us properly but we are not doing the job of telling our own stories,” Ameto continued. “Every Nigerian knows what is happening, and I blame both individual journalists and the media houses for political coverage that is character based and not deep enough.”
At the rally that morning, a new speaker talked about efforts to buy clothing for Nigerian schoolgirls. Ameto shook her head. “We don’t need an emotional response,” she said. “We need an intelligent response.”